Jul 082009

Schick, Irvin C. The Erotic Margin: sexuality and spatiality in alteritist discourse 1999. Link

Schick makes one point very clear at the outset: don’t simplify Orientalism into “West=male/Orient=female”. There are too many alternate ways of characterizing the two civilizations. Some saw the West as a vulnerable female sexually threatened by the masculine Orient. Female Western visitors to Turkey or Persia sometimes saw the lives of Oriental women as having more agency and autonomy. Writers from all over the political spectrum have used the (fantastic, largely imaginary) harem as an allegory of society. TE Lawrence say Oriental men as masculine role models. These portrayals were driven by everything from anxieties and fears to confusion to “outright self-loathing.”

The point of Orientalism is that, in the European mind, the rest of the world was a blank screen where one could project whatever fantasies (sexual, political, religious, etc.) one wanted, without regard for plausibility or even internal consistency. Thus, the Oriental woman is both ugly and beautiful, innocent and scheming, submissive and domineering, filthy and obsessed with bathing. The Oriental man is both soft and feminized and a fierce, cruel warrior. The issue is who says what about who, and who listened to and believed the speaker. This goes back a long time. Sade, in 120 Days of Sodom, offhandedly mentioned “Turkish beds”, despite the fact that there is nothing special about beds in Turkey. Other pornographic works would deploy superficial signs of the Orient or Turkey or Persia for flavor.

In short, any Westerners who dare venture into the exotic East should brace themselves as they will encounter incomprehensible, fiery passions, wild emotions, and strange sexual practices. Xenotopia is what Europe is not, the antithesis of bourgeois austerity, respectability and temperance. This is the profoundly didactic message underlying so many seemingly frivolous romances and erotic novels set outside of Europe.

Pg. 59

Sexuality, the element of power relations endowed with the greatest instrumentality according to Foucault, played a key role in mapping out difference: “here” and “there” were distinguished, if not principally, at least significantly, by the imagined differences between the sexual practices of “us” and “them.” Harems, eunuchs, public bathes, dancing girls, concubines, slave markets, all relentlessly provided evidence of the Orient’s alterity.

Pg. 66-67

Notice that many of the sexual practices described have their place in BDSM. Things that were once geographically remote are part of the West now, in theatrical, fantasy form.


Sex is a medium of articulating and expressing power. Before the 1857 Indian uprising, Indians were predominantly depicted as childlike and feminized in Western discourse. Afterwards, the image of Indian men raping English women was widely deployed, justifying English retaliation by the image of deviant male sexuality and damaged femininity.

The Orient is also a backdrop for masochistic fantasies. Frederick Millingen’s Wild Life among the Koords(1870) tells a bizarre story of female bandits who seduce, capture and strip naked unwary travelers, and who then alternate dancing lasciviously for them and flogging them. This absurd fantasy is repeated, apparently at face value, in Fred Burnaby’s On Horseback through Asia Minor (1877), next to dry information on public officials and military strategy. Nothing one can say about the Orient is too bizarre to be believed. (pg.132, 153-154)

For purposes of our discussion, there are several recurring scenarios. There’s the captivity narrative, in which the white woman is captured by racial others (whether Barbary Coast pirates, Australian aborigines, Turks, native Americans or China Sea pirates). Women were stripped naked before large groups of their captors, then sexually abused, raped and tortured. These scenes were the centerpieces of action/adventure stories, generally with lots of other non-normative sexuality. Female-written captivitiy narratives often emphasized that they were well-treated by their captors. (Pg. 141) Survival literature allowed alternate ways of relating to other races, with the reassurance that the transgression was acceptable because the protagonist survived and re-integrated into his or her home (European) society. (Pg.145-146) (See the story and film A Man Called Horse for a version of the captivity/survival narrative with a male protagonist.)

There’s also the curious trajectory of the “slave girl” becoming white. Orientalists loved to populate harems and slave markets with Circassian women, fair skinned and blue eyed; this was a way of having the best of both worlds, the supposed submission and sensuality of the Oriental woman but whose body was unmistakeably white. Sometimes they were just plain European, imprisoned due to some mishap. The classic of the genre, the anonymous The Lustful Turk, features British, Italian, Greek and French harem girls. Likewise, American slave stories are often about mulattos or mestizos, who are described as almost white.

Women’s fantasies also had their exogamous cake and ate it endogamously too. Rudolph Valentino’s character in The Sheik is a white man orophaned and adopted by Arabs, and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan is an English lord orphaned and raised by apes.

There’s also a strong emphasis on women being prepared for the harem or slave market by being depilated. Richard Burton suggests “the pain [of plucking out body hair] born so indifferently by the savage would kill or drive insane a European of the more educated classes.” (Pg. 211) Then there are sensual depictions of slave markets, rife with exhibitionism. “…the harem provided a perfect setting for the topos of the slave-nymph, portraying women as unselfish and submissive on the one hand, and lustful and sexually voracious on the other.” (Pg. 220)

Naturally, John Norman’s Gor series owes everything to this discourse, not least of which is the constant comparison to Earth ways.

To quote a review of Richard Bernstein’s The East, The West, and Sex:

With the sole and ongoing exception of Southeast Asia, in this sexual conflict East and West have swapped sides—suddenly and definitively. “The very places where Western men in the past sought pleasures and excitements are today amongst the most sexually conservative places on the planet.” Burton saw the Arab Middle East as a font of sexual freedom; today, he would be beheaded there for acting as he did.

In most of the East—in Africa, China, India, and the Middle East—this flip happened very fast. In the mid-19th century, “most of the world still subscribed to the harem culture, and in only the few small countries of the West, the small peninsular domain of Christendom, did a different attitude prevail.” By the end of the century, it was the other way around.

In other words, the party is over. This is a massive shift in worldwide sexual mores, on the same level as the fall of communism and the exposure of millions of Eastern European people to sexual liberation (for better or worse.)

Schick says that this may be a distinctly Western, binary way of thinking, to project the Jungian Shadow outwards geographically into “xenotopia.” Is that way of thinking still tenable when the world is increasingly small and flat?

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